Re-branding

Finally, on a Wednesday they walked through the door at the bottom of the garden. On the other side, all identity was erased. No longer defined by race, or gender, or religion, or nationality … anything. This meant the pros as well as the cons. It all had to go. Now just a number, X17359 was a little sad, because some of the old identities were useful and conferred a bit of priviledge. But there was no way to separate the wheat from the chaff with this process. It all had to be burnt away in the purifying fires of re-branding. Even the new “name” was as un-unique and vague as possible, with no accompanying meaning for or against. The “names” were even randomized so people couldn’t brag about how long ago they had walked through the door. Not like they wanted to, not after that experience, but this way there was no chance of temptation.

For you see, nobody was forced to walk through that door, a nobody who had gone through mentioned it to others. It wasn’t advertised, but everyone knew about it, one way or another. Some thought about it every day until they finally just did it, and for some it barely registered with them and they never did. But they all knew. It was encoded in fairytales and scripture. It was woven into pop lyrics and advertising jingles. It was never overt, but it was always there. It was kind of like a pattern you could only see when you had polarizing sunglasses on. It was hidden in plain sight, but only those with eyes to see noticed.

Tomorrow

Tomorrow she would go through the green door.
Tomorrow, not today. This is how it must be.
Today, she had to pass it by, with its peeling paint and the missing name-plate. Whose name had been there before? Was it absent to make space for her? Who would answer these questions?
Today, she would finally stop to admire the climbing vines, the red flowers. She would smell deeply of their scent, accepting it as a gift, as incense, as an offering to her, or a blessing. 
Or a warning. 
She’d walked by this doorway every day for a dozen years.
Tomorrow, she would place her hand on the door, take a deep breath, and walk inside, knowing that she would never pass through that doorway again. 
Tomorrow marked the end of her old life. 
But just today, she would live as she always had.

Tree-house

The tree grew from within the house, all on its own, slowly taking it over. The owners were amused at first, but then they had to move out. It hadn’t simply eaten them out of house and home; it had grown so that finally there wasn’t any room left for them. It had taken years, of course, so they didn’t realize that was what was happening. All they knew was that they felt an increasing pressure, a cramped-ness, an overwhelming sense of smallness. They thought they had outgrown their house, but actually it had outgrown them.

The Mueller family had bought the house back in 1976, back when they had moved to Philadelphia. Of course it wasn’t called Philadelphia when the area had first been settled, all those hundreds of years ago. Back then it was Coaquannock, named by the Lenni-Lenape tribe. The name meant “Grove of Tall Pines” back then. Now there was no grove, because the pines had been cut down by the new immigrants, the new settlers from across the sea. They cut down the trees to build their beds, their chest of drawers, their homes.

They had moved in just like this tree, quietly, surely, intending to coexist side by side. But then they too grew too big and started pushing out the people who were there. Back then it wasn’t just a house, but a whole area, a city, a state, then the entire country. They set up their own rules, their own laws, even their own names for the towns they had taken.

So much for “City of Brotherly Love”, the meaning behind Philadelphia. They only wanted peace for themselves. “Brother” meant people they fellowshipped with, not everyone. They followed the letter of the law and not the Spirit.

Perhaps this tree was trying to right a wrong. Or perhaps it was simply following in the settler’s footsteps. Or perhaps karma is real.



(Written 6/22/18)

The Wind

She felt the January wind slink into her apartment, curling in like a cat, all sly and sophisticated. It thought it could slide in, lurk in the corners long enough that she’d get used to it, let it stay, like an afterthought. This interloper wind, this vagabond gust thought to hide in the corner, unnoticed but still unwelcome, a silent squatter.

But she was through with hangers on, of all sorts. She’d lived alone these last 20 years, ever since her husband moved away to find work in another state. Or had he simply moved without her, a divorce in all but name? They’d grown apart ever since she became sober. Only when she wasn’t seeing life through the fog did she realize she‘d not married well. But, a vow was a vow, so they muddled on, more roommates than spouses.

It had worked, for a while, but then it all became clear, slowly, like a Polaroid photograph developing. Only then could she see who she’d married – or perhaps worse, the person she’d become since that day.

How had she forgotten who she was? And why had it taken so long to remember?

She had her back injury to thank for this, she mused. Nothing makes you reevaluate your life like pain. She’d had to stop everything and re-learn who she was, learn how to put down all the heavy things she was carrying. It didn’t take her long to realize that meant more than just physical.

So she made less time for him. She started spending time with friends. She started spending time on herself. She started learning what it was like to not spend so much time around someone who was addicted to being broken, to being a victim. It was liberating.

It was sad,in a way, to realize how much he had leaned on her, how much he had expected of her. But she was through listening to his litany of complaints, his lists of people who had done him wrong. It was sad, too, to see how special he thought he was – and not in a good way. He thought he was unique in his pain, that the world paid special attention to him, singled him out for abuse, when in reality the world was as indifferent and impersonal to everyone.

This need to play the victim, to play the indirect object, the one who was acted upon rather than the active agent, was what had put him in his funk. She could see this plain as day, this self fulfilling prophecy of disappointment and delusion. He had not gotten better in the decade they’d been together. Perhaps he had gotten worse. And so she agreed to the separation, to see if perhaps he would learn on his own. It was how she’d learned, after all.

It wasn’t intentional, this separation. She hadn’t asked for it, but welcomed it all the same as the gift she’d never thought to ask for.

He had fallen on hard times since the layoff. A cozy job with the government, safe and secure, was his ace in the pocket for years. He could coast along, unmotivated, lackadaisical, feckless. Perhaps that had been his undoing, that job where mediocrity was the name of the game. Perhaps he’d learned too well that it didn’t pay to try harder. There were no promotions for those who tried to improve upon the time-tested procedures. In fact, mostly there was censure from the fellow dozens of that lackluster lair. They invariably pulled down anyone who dared to make their own mediocre workload look as lackluster as it really was. Only if they all conspired to put forth the least amount of effort could they continue in their façade. 

But then there was the layoff. Or was it a forced retirement? Being civil service, they couldn’t be fired, but they could be subtly forced to leave. Privileges could be revoked. Expectations could be raised. Work could be documented, quantified, tracked. This weeded out some of the lazy ones, but not all. Some clung on harder, determined to outlast the push to eliminate them. Some were determined to stay until the end, until they retired or things got bad enough that going through the ordeal of finding another job seemed better in comparison.

Somehow he lasted through the waves of attrition, kept his head down in that strange game of musical chairs where people weren’t fired but still found they didn’t have a job. Every week certain jobs were deemed unnecessary or redundant. It was clever, if not exactly honest. The people weren’t eliminated. The jobs were . It was a simple as that.

And that is why he left, before the ax came down on him. But that too is how he was patterned – to think that he deserved better but didn’t have to work for it – in fact, shouldn’t work for it.

It was nearly a year before he worked up the momentum to get another job, in the meantime relying on the kindness of his wife to keep him in the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. And then she’d had it. It was only her anxiety attack that put her in the hospital that motivated him to start looking in earnest. Even then what he found was just part time, with no health insurance.

She’d promised, she said her vows, but she hadn’t counted on it being worse more often than better. She thought it would swing both ways, where they’d take turns relying upon each other. She’d not expected this protracted siege upon her compassionate nature.

And so finally he moved out, but not before she pushed him out of the bedroom, pushed his clutter out of the kitchen. She told him years ago it was her or the hoarding, and he’d not chosen her. So she got to do the choosing, slowly but surely maneuvering the situation to pushing him out without overtly doing so.

He was used to being a bit player in his own life anyway, so it was easy enough once she set her mind to it. No more would she be his emotional garbage dump. No longer would she pick up after him when he “forgot” to clean up his own messes – physical, financial, spiritual. She’d never agreed to having a child and certainly didn’t want one who was nearly 50.

So they lived apart, and it worked in a fashion. It wasn’t a normal marriage as far as they knew, but maybe it was. Maybe most people lived like this but never talked about it. Maybe behind closed doors all marriages were all the same. Meanwhile, it was time to do something about that draft. It wouldn’t do to let the wind get the better of her. She was done with being taken advantage of.

(written 1-3-19)

Soul Cave

A refreshing wave of cool, even sweet air filled her longs. A welcome respite from the oppressive heat outside. And yet, she wasn’t in a cave at all. It was a church, but it wasn’t a building. It was carved out from living rock, a sanctuary in stone.

And yet, it wasn’t. She was at work. From the outside all was the same as it has always been. It was inside that was different. She had done the work, using a spiritual pick-ax to hew out the limestone of her soul, removing the rubble handful by handful. It was the only way. There were no shortcuts with this work. It was slow going, but the other option was not at all. Only by doing this slow private work could anyone attain sanctuary. It couldn’t be found outside, not among the liars and charlatans, the shell games and shysters. Everybody who tried to sell others on their brand of salvation was a false Messiah, no matter how well intentioned.

She was lucky her stone was limestone. Some started with quartz, or marble, or even diamond. Too hard a core was very hard work. Most stopped too soon, barely making an alcove, barely enough to lean in from the rains. Homeless people sleeping in doorways had it better.

Yet others had caves of softer stuff – coal, or even chalk. Softer rock was certainly easier to work, but you ran the risk of the entire structure collapsing in on you. You had to plan ahead, taking out only some, not too much. You had to leave supports, like how stalactites met stalagmites. The best starting material was something strong yet also pliable.

Her soul rock used to be of denser stuff, but living water had softened it.

She thought back to that day when she had finally given up, finally relinquished her vain attempt at controlling her life and the actions of others around her. She gave over control to the still small voice she heard inside her, the voice that was breathed into every person when they were born.

Along with that breath, the first breath, was the quiet voice of the Creator. Outsiders (those who saw only the outside) thought that the child took her first breath, like it was something active, like it was something she did. Insiders knew that God breathed life into everyone, not just Adam. Every single person alive had been jump-started by God. This is why smoking was bad – it polluted that divine gift. This is why carefully regulating your breath was good – you were reconnecting with that gift. In rhythmically breathing in and out, you fell into God’s rhythm, God‘s embrace. You were calm because you had put your trust in the only One who had all the answers – even to questions that hadn’t been asked yet.

She sat inside her cave, just big enough for her, and looked out at the world. From here the light wasn’t so bright, the sounds weren’t so loud. She could experience it all with detachment, not anxiety.

Get with the Program

The asylum was a home to ghosts now. But then again, it always had been. Only back then it was the other kind. Back then the ghosts were bodies without a spirit, instead of the other way around. Or sometimes it was a body with more than one, or the wrong one – one that hadn’t come with the original owner.

People didn’t understand that bodies were a bit like houses. Sometimes they were unoccupied. Sometimes there was a new tenant. And sometimes there were squatters – people who snuck in and never left.

But the asylum’s founders never saw it that way. They saw it as a character flaw that people were less than stable. They were running a warehouse, not a hospital. It was more like a prison than a sanatorium. Nobody got sane there. In many cases they went even further down that rabbit hole. Sometimes so far they never came back.

That all changed when the new Program started. It was small at first – privately funded by a few far-sighted citizens and understanding congregations. It never wanted to take government money. Government money meant government meddling, and that meant nothing ever got done.

The Program’s motto was “Get with the Program” and they didn’t advertise or recruit. People found them through word-of-mouth. People who had gotten their lives back told friends they thought were ready for it. It was private, but not secret. But it was free to the people who needed it. Healing shouldn’t cost money. That cheapens it. But there was a cost. The clients (never patients) had to clean and cook. They were supervised and assisted but they had to do the work. Idle hands meant idle spirits, and the goal of the Program was to re-integrate body and mind. They did this by making the clients participate in their own recovery. They truly healed themselves – and more importantly they were taught how to keep that momentum going once they left.

They weren’t out on their own after the Program. There were weekly meetings to attend as graduates, to remind themselves of how far they had come and the path that led to life. All too often people forgot how they got well and so got sick again, entropy being what it is at all.

The natural way of life leads to decay. The founders of the Program knew that. They taught their clients a series of steps to do daily maintenance on their souls and bodies, just like with a car or house. This was their secret. It wasn’t pills or talk therapy that did the trick, but they were included too. It was more like occupational therapy than psychotherapy, with the occupation being living your life.

For some people, just being alive was work, and hard work at that. The daily tasks of self-care didn’t come easy to them, or they never learned them. So they struggled with tasks that everyone else did unconsciously. Or they did them for a little while – a week, or a month, or even a year – and then forgot, or assumed their stability was normal, forgetting the incredible framework they had to build all the time in order to prop themselves up and avoid collapse.

They were taught that sanity isn’t like taking penicillin. You don’t follow this prescription for eleven days and then stop. It requires daily work to keep away the decay in body and mind, the decay that leads to death. Maybe it isn’t an actual death, but a sort of living death, a half life. Maybe it is a zombie kind of life, one where you go through the motions, never really here.

The goal of the Program was life, full stop. A true integration into reality, an active participation. It included classes in mindfulness, gratitude, and forgiveness. It taught cooking and how to navigate grocery stores. It taught how to budget money, time and energy. It taught how to express feelings verbally and through art. It taught self-sufficiency and interdependence. And it did it all out of love.

Eventually, the building closed, because this new way of living became part of the community’s way of life.  Everyone followed the Program.  It became normal to take care of bodies and souls together, to not see them as separate, or as opposed to each other. It became normal to be healthy in body, mind, and spirit.  They kept the old building as a reminder of how far they had come, and as a warning to not go back.

(Written mid-July 2018, updated February 2, 2019)